The Practice of Mental Vigilance

by Allen Watson

A Study in the Text of ACIM, Chapter 4

Synopsis: Course in Miracles presents a very clear spiritual practice or technique, one that I refer to in this article as "mental vigilance." Mental vigilance can be defined as watching our minds for any thought that opposes our knowledge of God and choosing to change our minds when we detect such thoughts. The Course recommends an active, conscious involvement in our own mental processes, in contrast to the rather passive detachment from our own minds most of us have accepted as normal.

A Personal Note from the Author

This is my fourth attempt to get this article written. I first wrote it as raw notes for a study group. I then did a fairly quick re-write for an article in our last newsletter, but we didn't have room. So I sent it to Tom Gossett to see if he could use it in his Canadian newsletter, Insight.

After Tom read the article, he politely rejected it as being too preachy, as if I was talking down to my readers or scolding them. When I read it over I thought I saw what Tom meant and made a few more changes.

By this time we were ready to do another Circle newsletter, so I gave the article to Robert to read over. To my surprise he had the same reaction Tom did: the article was too preachy. With two independent opinions saying the same thing, both from people whose opinions I respect, I figured I should take a fresh look at things.

I think there are at least two reasons why my first attempts were sounding too much like someone issuing proclamations from a pulpit. For one thing, the Course itself gets a little preachy on this subject. Jesus insists that we are responsible for our thoughts and for our fear; we have to handle these things ourselves. He says we are far too tolerant of our wandering minds. Over and over he seems to be saying, "Get with the program, folks. If you don't do it no one is going to do it for you." I think, therefore, that any article dealing with this subject will, of necessity, contain some of that "This is what you need to do" tone.

Another factor, however, was more at fault: my judgment on my own imperfect practice of mental vigilance. I was preaching to myself and scolding myself, and it came out as scolding my readers. I needed to practice exactly what I was writing about, looking at my own thoughts, to get what I was writing about written properly!

I have done a major re-write of the article, and this time I hope it comes across with a kinder, gentler, and more human tone. The message from the Course that I am trying to convey may arouse guilt reactions, as it did with me. So if you start to feel as though I am preaching at you, or that the Course is, please take a second look.

Mental vigilance is a touchy subject because the Course is actually asking us to do something. (Gasp!) And more than that, it is making our spiritual awakening dependent on our doing it. If you find you have resistance to what this article says, may I suggest that you look at your thoughts, and ask yourself what you are thinking that is triggering your resistance. See if, perhaps, there are some thoughts you want to change. And if I am still projecting some of my own guilt on you, then I can only ask your forgiveness.

Mental Vigilance Introduced

The early part of Chapter 4 deals with the practice of mental vigilance. Section IV, "This Need Not Be," presents the practice in detail, and this article will concentrate on that section. The Introduction and first three sections of Chapter 4 build up to that section; therefore, I'd like to summarize a few thoughts from this earlier part of the chapter. For maximum understanding please look up the references and read them; I have had to refrain from quoting them all to keep this article to a manageable length.

The fundamental choice that confronts us all is: Which voice will we listen to? Ego or Holy Spirit? (T-4.In.2:1) Mental vigilance consists of recognizing that this choice is our fundamental responsibility. Until we dismiss the ego from our minds, through conscious choice, we will simply reenact the separation in every moment of our lives. The ego can only be given up voluntarily (T-In.3:4-6).

Teaching and learning enable us to change our minds, which makes them great strengths. But without willingness to change we cannot learn anything. Our ego thinking got us into this mess, and unless we are willing to change that thinking we will stay in it (T-4.I.4:1,2). We are being called to active participation in the transformation of our thoughts. Jesus tells us, "If you are willing to renounce the role of guardian of your thought system and open it to me, I will correct it very gently and lead you back to God" (see T-4.I.4:4-7).

What I've been discovering is that my first steps into mental vigilance have uncovered, not some deep, dark ego secrets, but simply how frantically I do act as guardian of my thought system. My first efforts at vigilance have uncovered nothing but my resistance to vigilance! If you had told me that I was carefully avoiding having to look at my thoughts I would have said you were mistaken. Now, I know it is so, which is a start at least. So many times, when practicing the Workbook, I have had the lesson brought to mind only to say, "Not now; I'll think about that in a minute." "In a minute" never comes.

It is unsettling to realize how we have tried to cordon off our own minds from conscious awareness. In listening to the ego we have many thoughts we desire to retain in our minds to support the ego; however, we dare not be consciously aware of those thoughts. If we became conscious of them, we would either feel too much guilt, or recognize their insanity and let them go. So we think them while simultaneously refusing to look at them.

Workbook Lesson 136 (paragraphs 3 to 5) makes it clear how we do this.

[The ego defenses] seem to be unconscious but [that is, only] because of the rapidity with which you choose to use them. In that second, even less, in which the choice is made, you recognize exactly what you would attempt to do, and then proceed to think that it is done (W, p. 250; W-pI.136.3:3,4).

The ego cannot set up defenses unconsciously (W, 250; W-pI.136.4:1,2). "But afterwards, your plan requires that you must forget you made it, so it seems to be external to your own intent…" (W, p. 250; W-pI.136.4:3). I believe that what we call the unconscious mind consists of nothing but thoughts that once were conscious but which we have deliberately forgotten. We program the computer of our unconscious and then conveniently forget we wrote the program.

In personal guidance to Helen and Bill, recounted in Absence from Felicity, Jesus made the reason we must watch our minds exceedingly clear. He said:

You persist in believing that when you do not consciously watch your mind, it is unmindful. It is time to consider the whole world of the unconscious, or unwatched mind. This will frighten you because it is the source of fright….The unwatched mind is responsible for the whole content of the unconscious… (Absence from Felicity).

The Course responds to our questions about how the mind could have made the ego long ago by telling us to watch our minds in the present. It asks us to look at our minds in the present to see how we are making the ego now. If we can answer that question, the past will no longer matter (see T-4.II.1:1-3 and T-4.II.3:1, 4). We are "doing" the ego now, and it is in this present moment we need to expose the making of the ego and choose to let it go. That's what mental vigilance is all about.

When we catch our mind "making" the ego in the present, the next step is to realize that "the mind need not work that way" (T-4.II.3:6). We have the power to choose differently.

This is where I usually get stuck. So often it seems that I am powerless to free myself from the ego's beliefs in fear, guilt and attack. This is where the Course seems most infuriating. It insists that my belief in powerlessness is just another ploy of the ego to enable me to deny responsibility for my thoughts. All the ego's defenses get triggered to keep me from taking that responsibility. Perhaps I simply deny that the ego thoughts are there, or that they are even worth bothering with. Or perhaps I make myself guilty for having them. Until I am ready to be responsible for the thoughts, to forgive myself for having them, and to acknowledge my mind's power to change them, they seem to have a power all their own that is beyond my control.

The prospect of changing all these ego thoughts seems so intimidating that we simply tolerate them.

It has never really entered your mind to give up every idea you ever had that opposes knowledge. You retain thousands of little scraps of fear that prevent the Holy One from entering. Light cannot penetrate through the walls you make to block it, and it is forever unwilling to destroy what you have made. No one can see through a wall, but I can step around it. Watch your mind for the scraps of fear, or you will be unable to ask me to do so (T-4.III.7:1-5).

Jesus is saying that we have never before seriously tried to do what he is asking, which is "to give up every idea you ever had that opposes knowledge." He is asking us to give it a serious try now. He says there are "thousands of little scraps of fear" in our minds, and he asks us to "watch your mind for the scraps of fear." Watch our mind. That is what this is all about, watching our mind.

The little scraps of fear are what prevent "the Holy One" from entering our minds. The light can't "penetrate the walls you make to block it." That's what we have to watch for, that is what we need to see: that the little scraps of fear we are protecting in our minds are blocking out the light! That is how we make the ego.

The way of release is in these words:

No one can see through a wall, but I can step around it. Watch your mind for the scraps of fear, or you will be unable to ask me to do so.

Jesus says, "I can step around those walls. I can bypass your ego—but you need to ask me to do so." And if we refuse to look at the scraps of fear, we will not be able to ask him to step around them. So the key thought here, the thing on which everything else depends, is this: Watch your mind for the scraps of fear. This requires being very honest with ourselves and with him, hiding nothing (T-4.III.8:1-2).

I've found that my problem is taking all this much too casually. I let my mind drift under the influence of the ego without watching it or questioning it. The Workbook trains us to develop a habit of active, conscious watching. It trains us to turn our thoughts to God every morning and evening, every hour during the day, five or six times in between the hours, and in response to every ego thought we detect. I've discovered that when I "really try" to do what the Workbook says, I find out how adept my mind is at avoiding being watched!

Then Jesus says, "If you will really try to do this, you have taken the first step toward preparing your mind for the Holy One to enter" (T-4.III.8:3). Oh, he knows us too well! "If you will really try to do this," he says. We read about it, we may read it hundreds of times in the Course, but do we really try to do it? Or do we make a token effort and then forget it? If we "really try" we have taken the "first step."

When we are really trying to do this, we are alert for any ego thought that comes into our mind, and we meet it at once with the realization, "I'm doing it again, and I don't need to. I can choose a different way of thinking. I don't have to allow these thoughts to run my mind." We realize, to paraphrase the V-8 commercial, "Wow! I could have had a miracle!"

The intent of that commercial is to get people to stop running on old habits and to think of something new. Instead of just saying, "I'll have a Coke," stop and think; I could have V-8 instead. The intent of the Course is the same. Instead of letting that ego thought run by unchecked, stop and think; "Hey! I could have a miracle instead."

How To Practice Mental Vigilance

Section IV, "This Need Not Be," gives a very clear description of the practice of mental vigilance. The first sentence is what we don't want to acknowledge: "If you cannot hear the Voice for God, it is because you do not choose to listen." That choice to not hear is what we are watching to discover. And "that you do listen to the voice of your ego is demonstrated by your attitudes, your feelings and your behavior" (T-4.IV.1:2). This, too, is what we are watching to see. We are watching our thoughts, our feelings and our behavior to notice the ways we listen to the ego.

Later, in Section VI of this chapter, Jesus says he has spoken of the ego as if it were real because it "was necessary to persuade you that you cannot dismiss it lightly, and must realize how much of your thinking is ego-directed" (T-4.VI.1:3,4). That is what he is asking us to notice: just how much of our thinking is ego-directed. We don't realize what we have been doing because the ego is skilled at hiding itself: "How can it maintain the trick of its existence except with mirrors?" (T-4.IV.1:7) The ego has to deceive, distract, and misdirect our attention to maintain its existence. That is exactly why we have to look at our minds, watch them carefully, to be painfully honest with ourselves, and make a serious effort to do this. It is not easy!

In paragraph 2, the Course spells out what it is asking of us, what I am calling "mental vigilance." It begins with reminding us that we are not being asked to change our behavior; we are being asked to change our mind. It is our mind that is listening to the ego and choosing not to listen to the Holy Spirit. We can change that, although we may not think we can. Here the Course lays out a process we are to follow, a process in which I see five steps. (All five points are drawn from the T-4.IV.2:1-9, or page 57, 1st edition; I use only the sentence numbers as references in what follows.)

1. Be Conscious of Your Mood

"When your mood tells you that you have chosen wrongly, and this is so whenever you are not joyous…" (2)

The Course asks us to start by being aware of our moods and feelings. Whenever we notice a shortage of joy, something is off. We have made a wrong choice in our minds, and the joyless mood is the result. Our moods and feelings serve as "early warning systems." They are an alarm going off, telling us that we have made a mistaken choice. A joyless feeling is an indicator that we need to pay attention to our minds, and to change them.

2. Know This Need Not Be

The second step, once we have become conscious of our feelings giving the alarm, is to recognize or know that "this need not be" (2). Joy is always possible. This mood, whether depression, anxiety, or something else, is not inevitable. It doesn't just come upon us mysteriously by accident. It isn't imposed upon us by some power external to our minds. "In every case" —notice that; in every case, there are no exceptions— "you have thought wrongly about some brother God created, and are perceiving images your ego makes in a darkened glass" (3).

What is it we have done? We have thought wrongly. Something is off in our mind. It isn't anything outside us; it is in our mind. Specifically, we have thought wrongly about some brother God created. It may be another person we are thinking wrongly about; it may be ourselves. But in every case we are having mistaken thoughts about some creation of God. We are seeing that creation as less than what God made it to be. This and only this is the source of our shortage of joy!

The more I practice with the Course, the more I find I can catch myself before things get really bad. I used to need something like major depression or total panic to wake me up to the fact that something was wrong. Now, I am starting to recognize much lesser clues and to respond to them. Whenever my joy is not complete (which is still most of the time) I can do something about it if I want to.

Since it is our incorrect thoughts that are causing our lack of joy, the good news is that we can change those thoughts. "This need not be." If the problem is reacting with a lack of love, the answer is simply to choose to supply the love that is lacking. There is something we can do about the situation; we can change our thoughts.

3. Think About Your Thoughts

The third step begins to take corrective action:

Think honestly what you have thought that God would not have thought, and what you have not thought that God would have you think (T-4.IV.2:4).

In other words, think about our thoughts. Thinking wrongly was the cause of our missing joy, so think about what those wrong thoughts might have been.

There are two ways our thoughts can be off target: positively and negatively. Positively, we may have accepted some ego thought as our own. We might be thinking a thought of attack, or mulling over a grievance. We might be thinking of ourselves as unworthy. In some way we are perceiving ourselves or our brother as less than a perfect creation of God.

Or, our mistake might be negative, one of omission rather than commission. We may be withholding love, failing to respond lovingly to our own need or the need of a brother.

I'm finding that I have a great resistance to doing this. It isn't difficult to understand what the Course is asking of us, but sometimes it seems difficult to do. I don't want to admit that my thoughts may be the cause of my unhappiness, rather than the external things I have been blaming. Nevertheless I am beginning to learn that when I do do it, I find more peace.

4. Search For What We Have Done

This step is, in a sense, the logical continuation of the previous step. After we think about what our mistaken thoughts have been, we can search, in our mind, for what we have done or left undone as a result of those thoughts. To me this seems designed to reinforce my awareness of the effects of my thinking, to make me conscious of how my thoughts have affected the situation. This step, under the Holy Spirit's guidance, may provide some insights about what I can do when I have changed my mind in the next step.

5. Change Your Mind To Think With God's

The last step is quite simply stated: Change our mind to think with God's. The idea of changing our mind, or choosing again, is a major theme of the Course. The very last section of the Text is titled, "Choose Once Again." It says, "You always choose between your weakness and the strength of Christ in you" (T-31.VIII.2:3). "In every difficulty, all distress, and each perplexity Christ calls to you and gently says, 'My brother, choose again'" (T-31.VIII.3:2).

When they hear this most people find themselves asking, "But how do I do that?" The Course's most common answer is that we don't have to concern ourselves with how, we just have to be willing. It tells us that when we choose to change our minds, with the weakest of efforts, the Holy Spirit adds His strength to ours and makes it possible for us to do it.

For me, the thing that always seems to work, eventually, is just to talk to Jesus (or the Holy Spirit). I tell him exactly what is going on with me; What I am thinking; what I am feeling; how impossible it seems; how I don't know how to do it. By the time I finish talking, somehow my mind has changed. I can't tell you how it works, but it works.

Jesus is well aware how hard changing our minds seems to us. He immediately says, here in Chapter 4, "This may seem hard to do, but it is much easier than trying to think against it" (T-4.IV.2:6), that is, easier than trying to think against God's Mind. He explains a bit further:

Your mind is one with God's. Denying this and thinking otherwise has held your ego together, but has literally split your mind (7,8).

To think against God we must go against our nature. The Course tells us frequently that following the truth or living in love is much, much easier than living in the ego because love is what we are. It can't be hard to be what we are; it can't be anywhere near as hard as being what we are not!

Jesus, as our loving brother, says he is deeply concerned with our minds. He wants us to share his concern because he knows that only mental vigilance will free us from the errors of our egos.

Those are the steps of the process of mental vigilance:

Be conscious…Know…Think…Search…Change.

We Need Not Lack Vigilance

Watch your mind for the temptations of the ego, and do not be deceived by it. It offers you nothing (T-4.IV.6:1,2).

The Course is asking us to give up our active choosing for the ego, choices we may have repressed from memory. It says our mind is capable of focusing, rising above fatigue, and healing itself and others. It says that we will know this about our minds when we give up paying attention to the ego.

As of now, Jesus says, "you are not sufficiently vigilant against the demands of the ego to disengage yourself" T, p. 58; 4.IV.6:4). And again he repeats, "This need not be." In this case, he is not just talking about a particular manifestation of the ego, like sadness, or guilt, or anxiety. He is talking about the entire matter of our lack of vigilance. Our lack of vigilance need not be. This is something we can change, and it is something we are being asked to change.

If I have a New Year's resolution it is to be more mentally vigilant. I have decided to repeat the Workbook again, using its support to develop this crucial habit. As I work with developing this habit, I am also learning not to "guilt" myself for not already having the habit. Learning to cooperate in undoing my ego is what I am here for. I can congratulate myself because I've enrolled in the curriculum of the Holy Spirit, and He has a guaranteed, 100% success rate. Everybody who takes His course passes! He is very skilled at working with the learning impaired; I don't have to be afraid about not being able to learn.

We Must Sign Up for the Course

T-4.IV.7:1 tells us that, "The habit of engaging with God and His creations is easily made." It certainly does not seem easy to us. Why not?

The habit is easily formed, Jesus says, "…if you actively refuse to let your mind slip away." The word "actively" implies that we must make a conscious effort; we must act. All too often we are passive instead of active; we let our minds just "slip away." The development of a habit of "engaging with God and His creations" is what we are after, and developing a habit requires regular, conscious practice. We are used to being passive. To develop a habit of "engaging with God" we must become actively involved in our mental processes. We have to sign up for the course.

We may think that we can't concentrate, but Jesus tells us:

The problem is not one of concentration; it is the belief that no one, including yourself, is worth consistent effort. Side with me consistently against this deception, and do not permit this shabby belief to pull you back. The disheartened are useless to themselves and to me, but only the ego can be disheartened (2-4).

When we remain passive, we never even get in the race; we stumble at the starting gate. We stumble over the idea that it isn't worth the effort. Notice: It does require effort. We probably have some idea of how much effort it would take to monitor our thinking like this, and the sad fact is we don't think we're worth the effort. We have such a low opinion of ourselves that we either don't think we are capable of doing it, or we don't think our Self is worth the trouble. What a "shabby belief" that is! If we are disheartened at the start we are useless to ourselves. Jesus says it is a "deception," obviously a deception of the ego to keep us from even trying. He urges us not to let discouragement pull us back, and to "side with" him against it.

When I catch myself drifting for a few hours or days, not paying attention or feeling vaguely discouraged, I've come to recognize that somewhere, for some reason, I must have decided that I'm not worth the effort. What brings me back to practice is the realization that I really am worth the effort! I deserve to live in joy, and God's Will for me is perfect happiness.

Do not settle for anything less than this, and refuse to accept anything but this as your goal. Watch your mind carefully for any beliefs that hinder its accomplishment, and step away from them. Judge how well you have done this by your own feelings, for this is the one right use of judgment (T-4.IV.8:4-6).

He tells me to monitor my feelings. I can ask myself, "Am I joyful?" If not, I can actively engage myself in the process given here. Know this need not be; think about my thoughts; search my actions; and change my mind. This is how I judge against the ego; this is how I come to identify with my Self as God created me.

In the eleventh paragraph Jesus assures us that we can and will do this. He says,

I am not mistaken. Your mind will elect to join with mine, and together we are invincible (T-4.IV.11:4, 5).

Mental vigilance is a lesson we can learn. If Jesus asks us to learn it, that means we can learn it. If Jesus asks us to learn it, he will show us how. We are worth the effort! And the rewards are such experiences of peace and joy that we will never want to hide our ego again.

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